You Must Be This Able-Bodied to Ride: A Tale of Discrimination and Vengeance

The following is an excerpt from my memoir project. Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

Not long after I got my first leg braces, my family took a trip to an amusement park in Ohio. Because of the amount of walking the day would entail, my mom rented a wheelchair when we entered the park. The chair, intended for an adult, dwarfed me. My Pocahontas shoes didn’t even come close to touching the foot rests. For the first time since I was a toddler in a stroller, I felt what it could be like to not worry about walking distance, getting tired, or slowing everyone down. As Mom pushed me through the winding pathways of the park, I was able to take in the attractions, rides, and (slightly terrifying) mascots instead of looking down at my feet, scouting the pavement for anything that could cause me to trip and fall. The energy I usually had to reserve for walking was now powering my ability to just be an excited kid at an amusement park. To my surprise, I realized that I liked being in a wheelchair.

It was my mom who first noticed all the stares. The Midwest summer sun was powerful and hot, and because I had not yet been conditioned to hate my body, I was wearing shorts. While I had been looking everywhere except down at my feet, my braces seemed to be the most interesting attraction at the park that day. I heard my mom huff behind me as she pushed me through the throngs of visitors. 

“The next person who stares at your legs…” she began through her teeth. “Just swing them back and forth until they actually look at your face, and tell them that they’re leg braces! Since they’re so curious about it!” 

Deflated, I started paying attention to the crowd. Nearly every person we passed stared at my legs, craning their necks until I was gone from their sight. Dads in white t-shirts and sunglasses with nylon neck straps, moms wearing fanny packs and walking shoes, kids with sticky mouths and face paint. They all stared, their eyes and my legs like the polar ends of a magnet. Most of them didn’t meet my eye for even a fleeting second. Those who did offered a quick, apologetic smile and continued past. I didn’t want to shout at them or swing my legs. I wanted to cover up, to hide away from the prying eyes that proved I was different, a freak. 

As the afternoon and I rolled on, my attention was again pulled to the excitement cartwheeling around me. I forgot the staring crowd, finding the chaotic, colorful surroundings much more interesting. I delighted in the sensation of the chair being wheeled over a rickety wooden bridge and squealed when a nearby log ride made its descent and drenched us in its deluge. I ditched the wheelchair and leg braces altogether when we cooled off at the park’s splash pad. My mom seemed to have forgotten (or was actively ignoring) the staring crowd too. Zima helped.

We visited amusement parks sporadically after that, a few times here and there when the summer vacation timing worked out and tickets were discounted. Even for these sporadic outings we had the routine down, because having a disability in an able-bodied world means always having a plan. We would leave in the pre-dawn hours, drive across the stateline into Kentucky or Ohio and arrive at whatever park we were visiting early enough to secure a rental wheelchair. On one such trip, my mom invited her best friend and her two boys along. 

We were visiting the same Ohio park where I had first used a wheelchair, and from the moment my ass hit the oversized seat, the older son, Kurt, moaned about the fact that he had to walk. 

“You’re so lucky,” he whined at me as his cheeks turned red under his blonde bowl cut. 

I didn’t respond. He wasn’t saying anything mean exactly, but something about it bothered me in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The day wore on and Kurt complained from ride to ride, attraction to attraction. We approached the rickety bridge just as the log ride was about to make its descent, and I pleaded with my mom to go faster so we could get in position before the big splash. Mom started walking faster until another refrain of “You’re so luuuucky” pierced the air. The chair jerked to a stop, and I looked back to my mom, the “What gives?” look on my face quickly melting when I saw the fire in her eyes. 

“Hey!” she yelled tersely through her teeth, the practiced tone of a mother disciplining children in public. “She would much rather be able to walk around like you! Knock it off!”

We missed the splash, but Kurt was quiet for the rest of the afternoon. My mom had understood what I hadn’t been able to, the thing that I couldn’t quite figure out. Calling me lucky wasn’t mean, but it was annoyingly dishonest. Living with a disability was hard, draining work. There was the physical toll inherent to a muscular neuropathy, and an even bigger emotional toll in being a kid trapped in a body that didn’t work like other kid’s bodies. I had been stared at constantly, called names, and been left to sit on the sidelines. Getting to enjoy the amusement park with the aid of a wheelchair didn’t feel like luck. It felt like basic humanity. 

Once a year, we didn’t have to travel across state lines to enjoy amusement park rides and attractions. Every summer, our tiny Indiana town held the Buck Creek Festival (lovingly referred to as the Butt Crack Festival by kids like me). The meager carnival housed games, a few rides, and fried food. Because the town and the festival were both so small, my parents agreed to let me go with my friends unchaperoned the summer before I turned ten. That June day, I slipped on my favorite purple shorts and matching tank top, clasped my legs in my braces and headed off to the carnival with my best friend, Amy.

It’s important to note that I hated roller coasters or any ride that came close to the adrenaline pumping action provided by roller coasters. In all the trips we took to amusement parks, I was content to watch my older siblings scream their heads off from afar as I waited to go on the smaller rides. There was one ride in particular that I loved above all else, one that gave me the anticipatory excitement I imagined roller coaster junkies felt: the Scrambler. Known in other parts of the world as the Twist, ChaCha, or Merry Mixer, the Scrambler spins its riders in individual cars while the ride spins on two different axes, centrifugal force in action. I loved the feeling it produced in my belly, like going over a hill too fast in a car, over and over. I loved the way my friends and I smashed into each other each time the Scrambler scrambled us, laughing until we couldn’t catch our breath. That summer, the Buck Creek Festival had added the ride to its attractions, and I made a beeline for it as soon as the bored teenager at the front kiosk slid on our wristbands.

As it would turn out, I was not the only one in our little town excited about the new ride. Amy and I waited in a winding line for fifteen minutes, chattering about how much fun it was going to be while we listened to the screams of delight from those on the ride. At last, we reached the front of the line, where a tall man with mirrored sunglasses and a thick black mustache was checking wristbands and letting riders through the metal gate. He checked Amy’s band and she stepped through to pick out our car. I lifted up my wrist, but the man blocked me from entering. I had seen enough dads in sunglasses staring at my legs that his mirrored lenses couldn’t fool me. He was staring at my leg braces.

“You can’t ride,” he told me matter-of-factly while a wad of gum rolled around in his mouth.

“I’ve ridden this ride a buncha times other places, and it’s never been a problem,” I replied with the most courage I could muster.

“Well, I’m not letting you on,” he declared as he started letting people through the gate around me. 

Amy was watching from the car she had selected, confused as strangers sat down beside her. I stepped to the side as he closed the gate, the ride now full. I watched as the riders zoomed forward and zipped away, attempting a smile at Amy each time her car came toward me. It was very important to me that the jerk working the ride didn’t see me cry. If I had worn pants, he wouldn’t have even known there was anything wrong with me, I thought. Like that first trip to the park after I had gotten my braces, I desperately wanted to cover up. 

Amy stepped off the ride, her hair a mess and a giant smile plastered on her face. I told her what happened and she exclaimed that it wasn’t fair. We decided to ride the Ferris wheel, where the attendant let me on without question. From the top, I stared down at the Scrambler and the man running it. He looked so small from up here, like I could just reach out and crush him.

“He what!?” my mom yelled. 

“He said it was because of my leg braces. He couldn’t let me on.”

In my parents’ backyard later that June evening, I told my mom everything that had happened. I saw the same fire in her eyes that had been burning the day Kurt wouldn’t stop calling me lucky. For a few minutes, she was quiet, her head shaking back and forth at whatever internal dialog was happening in there.

“We’re going back tomorrow,” she finally said as she turned a piece of meat on the grill. “I’m coming with you.” She kissed the top of my head in her practiced way of letting me know her rage wasn’t because of me, but for me. 

“That’s bullshit!” my 18 year-old sister chimed in as I plopped down next to her at the patio table. “I rode that ride today, and he didn’t stop me! I had my leg braces on, but I was wearing jeans so he couldn’t tell.” 

I knew it. 

“Well, then you’re coming with us. We’re gonna teach him a little lesson,” my mom decided with a grin that didn’t quite touch her fiery eyes.

Lindsey went ahead of us, dressed in jeans, and got her wristband. After she had been let onto the Scrambler, Mom grabbed my hand and marched right past the ticket kiosk, heading straight for the mustached man. 

“Hey!” she shouted in a way I wasn’t used to. It wasn’t the angry, measured tone of discipline. It was the enraged growl of a mother bear. The man turned to face her, his startlement obvious even behind his mirrored lenses. 

“Why the hell wouldn’t you let my daughter onto this ride yesterday?”

“Ma’am,” he began as he gestured to my leg braces. “It’s policy. I can’t–”

“Bullshit!” she cut him off. “There is no reason she shouldn’t be allowed to be on this ride! There’s nothing wrong–”

“Ma’am” the man cut her off now. “I don’t know her situation. If she was to get hurt, we’d be liable.”

Mom rolled her eyes and pointed her finger at his chest. “Oh, come on. That’s not true and you know it! You didn’t let her on because you could see her leg braces and assumed she couldn’t.”

Their argument continued while the ride spun behind them, the details of their words lost to time. What I do remember was what my mom said as the Scrambler slowed to a stop.

 “You’re just an asshole!”

At this, he balked, his eyebrows raising comically from his sunglasses. He began stammering a response, but we were already walking away and the ride had ended. He turned to open the gate, and as my sister stepped through, she lifted a pant leg to show him her leg brace. “I rode yesterday, too.” For good measure, she flipped him the bird.

As the three of us rode home, our mission accomplished, I thought about the day before when I had been looking at the man from the top of the Ferris wheel. As tiny as he had looked from up there, he looked even smaller after my mom and sister were through with him. I smiled at that. It was one of many times my mom’s strength, fearlessness, and anger would come to my aide.

And it was the last time I ever attended the Butt Crack Festival. 

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